PR Gets in Hot … Coffee?

by Kerry Martin

I recently watched an interesting (albeit, one-sided) documentary about tort reform—the aptly named Hot Coffee, which examines frivolous lawsuits and the famous settlement after the McDonald’s spill.  While mostly political, it made a few observations … especially with the portrayal of “evil PR companies.”

The documentary’s ‘exhibit one’ explained how the McDonald’s case was blown out of proportion in the media, twisting the victim’s plight into a prime example of consumer greed (what they called winning a ‘lawsuit lottery’).  That case became the poster child for frivolous lawsuits and spawned a campaign for tort reform in the media and in the political arena.  And where does this documentary point the finger?  The vulture PR consultants, of course, who were bankrolled by those evil corporations and who spun the story.

But the funny thing is, all of the examples this documentary provided were of advertising campaigns … billboards, commercials, and other ads that carried the same message.  All were paid spots pushing one point of view.

Too often, I see public relations vilified because it gets lumped in with other professions.  No, I’m not a publicist and wouldn’t advise a client to do a sex tape to get their name out there.  PR is also different from political campaigning (I’d like to meet the “PR professional” that came up with the Taliban Dan smear spot).  And now in this latest example, PR takes the blame for advertising spots that used scare tactics and insults to get their message across.

The main differences between advertising and public relations are paid coverage versus earned coverage and the gatekeepers who filter and evaluate the messages we present.  That’s why PR in its very nature is an industry that espouses honesty and integrity—all claims are examined and reported by a third-party:  whether the news media or in this era of social media “citizen journalists” who Google every word looking for cracks in your story.

My favorite part of the movie came when one expert being interviewed said she blamed the journalists who didn’t do their research when reporting on cases.  I guess they got taken in by those scheming ‘PR’ people.

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